OUT OF LONDON The foreign student visa row is a bogus crisis created by the Tories and could be economically suicidal for the country

No matter how the British government tries to dress up its controversial decision to ban London Metropolitan University (LMU) from teaching non-European Union foreign students, it doesn’t require great insight to see it for it is: a bogus crisis caused by the ruling Tories’ obsession with an artificial target to cut down immigration to please their “Little England” supporters and tabloid editors.

Up to 2,700 students, mostly from the Indian subcontinent, Africa and West Asia, face deportation if they are unable to find places in other universities over the next few weeks, which is causing deep anger and panic. In recent days, we have heard heart-rending stories of how in many cases parents sold their properties to send their children to study in Britain.

Ostensibly, the ban was prompted by the university’s failure to ensure that all foreign students on its rolls were genuine and not potential illegal immigrants masquerading as students. However, anyone who has followed the government’s relentless pursuit of its anti-immigration agenda would find it hard to believe that the move is anything but another stab at pushing the Tories’ manifesto promise of dramatically reducing net migration before the next general elections in 2015.

Help, not deter

As The Financial Times pointed out, the government “has become a prisoner of its own flawed immigration policy.”

“Having undertaken to reduce the net number of immigrants to 100,000 by 2015, it is casting around for ways to show its determination to reach this goal ... Bearing down on non-EU foreign student numbers may seem an appealing expedient. It is, after all, one of the few big levers the government can pull. Foreign students make up 40 per cent of gross arrivals each year,” it wrote, pointing out that rather than deterring foreign students from coming to Britain, the government should actually “help” universities to recruit them considering their contribution to the British economy and their role in making British higher education globally more competitive. It is significant that the move against LMU came close on the heels of new official figures showing that migration figures have not shifted significantly despite the much-publicised “crackdown” that, over the past two years, has seen the introduction of an annual cap on migration, curbs on bringing in family members by naturalised citizens, restrictions on skilled migrants, and stricter eligibility rules for post-study visas for foreign students.

Analysts believe that the government has set itself an impossible target: the level of reduction in net migration it is seeking cannot be achieved simply by slamming the door on non-EU migrants. The biggest migration is from other EU countries but there is no way of stopping it because EU citizens enjoy an automatic right of free movement within member countries. Yet, non-EU migrants, especially students, continue to be targeted. In the name of checking “abuse” of student visas, the government has been turning the screws on universities and colleges wishing to sponsor non-EU applicants. They must obtain a licence from the U.K. Border Agency (UKBA) recognising them as “Highly Trusted Sponsors.” In return, they are supposed to act, effectively, as its eyes and ears by policing overseas students — down to making sure that they duly return home after completing their studies. The allegation against LMU is that it proved to be a “very, very deficient” sponsor. Which it might have been, but, as The Guardian argued, “that is an argument for investigation not causing mayhem for about 2,700 non-EU students” most of whom are genuine and suddenly find themselves in a limbo for no fault of theirs. The UKBA itself admits that no more than five per cent of the students may be guilty of wrongdoing and should be thrown out. No wonder, it has been accused of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with commentators pointing out that it should have been possible to differentiate between the bad apples and genuine students.

Monitoring students

“If London Metropolitan University needs encouragement to overhaul its bureaucracy, then bar it from taking any new foreign students, but do not deport wholesale hard-working current ones who are of benefit to our higher education system,” said The Independent.

Moreover, there is a bigger issue at stake here: should universities be encouraged to behave as vigilantes by getting them to spy on their students? It started with universities being told to keep an eye on Muslim students for signs of extremism and report suspected Islamists to the police. Now, they are being told to “monitor” their foreign students over visa rules. Treating institutions of higher education as extensions of MI5 is a disturbing trend and a bad advertisement for British democracy.

“The role of universities is to educate, not to police,” says Nadine el-Enany, a lecturer at Brunel University.

According to Richard Lambert, chancellor of the University of Warwick, vice-chancellors are under “intense pressure” from UKBA, often to the point of “having to account for their international students’ whereabouts almost in real time.”

Wrong assumption

There is an informed view that students should not be counted as migrants. Some of Britain’s major competitors in higher education such as America, Canada and Australia treat students as temporary visitors, and not as immigrants. The glib assumption in Britain that all foreign students are potential settlers is not correct. Figures, though disputed by the anti-immigrant lobby, show that up to 80 per cent foreign students go back to their countries after completing their courses. If the government continues to stick to its current immigration policy, foreign student numbers would need to be cut by at least 50,000 a year for it to reach anywhere near its target. Besides, it could cost the economy in the region of £3 billion a year in lost revenues. Britain’s cash-starved higher-education sector relies heavily on foreign students who pay as much as three times more for the same course as their domestic peers and — together with fee and other spending — contribute nearly £10 billion a year to the economy. Such is the economic pull of foreign students that there is apparently a scramble among universities to snap up LMU’s stranded students.

Mr. Lambert warns that the present policy is economically suicidal and if the government doesn’t change course, it would imply that it is “more interested in meeting its short-term political targets than it is in the long-term health of one of the country’s most successful sectors.”

A case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs?